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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Today, while steaming hot water ran over the top of my head, I had a revelation. Some of my brightest ideas come to me in the shower, and although this was not one of my biggest or best, it was a startling thought. In forty years of life, my mother never gave me a book as a present. Not for birthdays. Not for Christmas. Not one, ever.

There is an old black and white of me at one year of age, sprawled on the floor engrossed in the newspaper. By three years old I was reading independently. As I got older, any event I was forced to attend with my family was made bearable by the company of a book. To tide me over between library visits, I would sit with a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia in my lap devouring the contents. Summer visits to my cousins' in Boston were topped with stacks of hand-me-down Nancy Drew books. Seems like it would be clear to anyone who knew me that I loved to read. My paternal grandparents noticed. Many of my most treasured books are ones that they gave me as gifts or ones I took possession of from their library after they died. Family friends noticed. I still have their books with lovely inscriptions marking special occasions. There were a few children's books in our house that my mother had collected in her career as an early childhood specialist, but nothing personally selected for me.

I know my children love books. For birthdays or Christmas some of their biggest presents have been hardcover collections of their favorite children's stories: Curious George, Madeline, Narnia, George and Martha, Eloise, Winnie the Pooh, Babar the Elephant... They are thrilled to receive gift cards for Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.

Why, I wondered, did my mother never give me a book? How could she not know that would have been the easiest and most perfect gift?

I saw my mother discourage my brother's early and very obvious artistic talent, insisting that artist was not a valid vocation. Fortunately for him, my paternal grandmother, who was a gifted artist herself, chose to ignore my mother and lavished drawing books, paints, and pastels on him. My brother now works as a computer generated image artist in Manhattan. If you watch TV, you've seen his work.

Today I realized that my mother has been discouraging me the same way she did my brother all those years, only I have been punished for being bright. Did she ever encourage my passion for reading and learning? No. The word "potential" was always bandied about as something I had so much of, but often implied something I had wasted. Did she ever give me any guidance about how to put it to use? No. In my junior year of high school I was offered a full scholarship to Emory University. Did she help me with the process of college admissions or encourage me to pursue the offer? No.

The only explanation I can give is jealousy.

Now, that may sound a little far-fetched to some of you, because most of you are probably loving, giving parents, but after having her scream at me yesterday in the midst of a houseful of company that, "You think you're so goddamned smart and you're always rubbing it in everyone's face!" which is only the latest in years' worth of nastiness, I think I may have finally hit the mark. This accusation was made out of the blue, as I relaxed on the couch curled up with In Defense of Elitism, how ironic, withdrawn from the rest of the activity. This after she made an all-day show of hyper-complimenting my brothers' children while pointedly ignoring my girls. Thankfully they were oblivious. My youngest, who is inexplicably crazy about Nana, noticed the hostility toward me and finally warned her to, "Stop being mean to my Mama."

What has she to be jealous about? I never took anymore than a few odd courses at the community college, never got a diploma, never had any real career. Both she and my brothers have me beat there. Why would she be jealous? I hope to God my kids are better educated and smarter than I am, so much so, that it has become my full time job. How could she not have wanted that for me?

She is waiting for us to fail, for my girls to turn out no better than any of her other grandchildren, to prove that I am not so smart after all. We won't though, because my measure of success has never been to prove that my girls are any better than anyone else's; it is to have a solid, affectionate relationship with my daughters.

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